Every NFL season is packed full of storylines, whether it’s a return from injury, players getting a fresh start at new franchises, or teams wanting revenge for their previous season’s shortcomings. They drive the season and keep us fans on the edge of our seats from September all the way through to February. And at the centre of those storylines are the players themselves. So who are the most intriguing players to keep an eye out for in 2021? If this is a question you’ve been asking yourself, you’ve come to the right place.
Julio Jones – Atlanta Falcons (Maybe?)
Julio was an obvious choice for this list, especially after his phone call with Shannon Sharpe on Undisputed a few days ago. The 7-time pro bowler has been widely regarded as one of the best receivers the league has ever seen. My favourite Julio Jones stat is that he’s totaled three 250+ receiving yard games in his career – whilst no other player in NFL history has had more than one. From that alone, it’s obvious the man is special.
However, the Falcons haven’t been able to build around him enough to go the distance. To no fault of Jones, Atlanta has only been to the playoffs on 4 occasions and the closest they came to winning it all was their second half collapse in Super Bowl LII – a game where Jones was arguably the best player on the field. Since then it’s been down hill for the birds. It’s clear that he wants more, and boy does he deserve it. If number 11 winds up somewhere other than the Falcons, he might be the piece that takes a Super Bowl contending team over the hump. If the team doesn’t trade him, it’ll be interesting to see how that situation pans out.
Aaron Rodgers – Green Bay Packers (Maybe?)
I mean – come on. The Rodgers saga has been making headlines this whole offseason. He even stepped in as Jeopardy host for a few episodes which had everyone wondering whether he’d be in the league anymore, let alone with the Packers. The reigning NFL MVP has been pretty vocal about his displeasure with Green Bay’s front office and now he’s skipping OTAs and convincing most of the team’s receiving core to do the same. This back and forth is getting tenser by the day.
I’m not sure there’s ever been a player that’s gotten this annoyed with his team off the back of an MVP season and, as worrying as it is for Green Bay fans, the storyline is exhilarating. Everyone wants to find out who number 12 will be suiting up for in 2021. If he joins a team that’s on the Packers’ schedule this season, imagine watching that game unfold.
Orlando Brown Jr – Kansas City Chiefs
Leaving a contending team with a year left on your rookie contract is a bold move. Leaving a contending team for their biggest rival is a different conversation altogether. The move sent shock waves across the league, especially after the Chiefs’ offensive line woes in Super Bowl LV had everyone questioning whether they’d be able to turn the position group around for 2021. Was it a move that Baltimore will come to regret? Or did their front office know something we don’t?
Either way, it’s a huge year for Brown, who has the opportunity to take Kansas City back to their third consecutive Super Bowl. If he performs well, a huge contract will be on the table, whether it’s with the Chiefs or elsewhere. One thing’s for sure, I’ll be tuning in week two when he returns to Baltimore to go up against his old team. And who knows, maybe Mahomes and Jackson will face-off again come January. Get your popcorn ready…
JJ Watt – Arizona Cardinals
JJ Watt has a big year ahead of him in 2021. After being stuck on the Houston Texans for the last decade with a 4-6 playoff record, it was time he moved to a contender, and the Cardinals fit the bill. Despite being in the competitive NFC West the 3-time Defensive Player of the Year has the potential to return to his all-pro form with a strong supporting cast around him. He’s not lined up next to someone as talented as Chandler Jones before, so having someone else to draw the offensive line’s attention will do nothing but help Watt.
But that’s not the only thing that makes his 2021 campaign intriguing. JJ also has the added pressure of his insanely talented younger brother TJ. If the 26-year-old can continue to develop with Pittsburgh as he has done over the past two seasons, he has the potential to compete with his brother’s prime. Sibling rivalry is strong in the Watt household, so JJ will be on a mission to remain the best brother in the league.
JuJu Smith-Schuster – Pittsburgh Steelers
Some reports had JuJu linked to the Chiefs this offseason but he allegedly turned it down to stay with the Steelers. First of all, I respect the loyalty he’s shown to the team that drafted him. It must’ve been hard to turn down a team that’s just been to its second straight Super Bowl and has Patrick Mahomes on the roster.
The one-year ‘prove it’ deal he signed with Pittsburgh will have him fighting for every reception, yard and touchdown he racks up in 2021. He wants to show the world that he made the right choice and, for that, he’s an incredibly intriguing player this upcoming season. I’m going to be rooting for him.
Derek Carr – Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders offensive line was the team’s best position group in 2020 and Carr had a solid year behind it. So what did Jon Gruden do? He got rid of all of its key contributors and reached for an offensive lineman with the 17th pick in the draft. The bewilderment of Gruden’s decision-making is a topic for another day, but it does create some interesting prospects for his signal caller.
Derek Carr and the Raiders got the best of their biggest rival last season as they beat Kansas City 40-32 in week 5. The Las Vegas quarterback finished with a 71% completion percentage and 3 touchdowns – showing how he has the potential to go toe-to-toe with one of the league’s best teams. Which in my opinion, is one of the main reasons Gruden has stuck by him for the 2021 season. However, a huge focal point this year will be whether Carr can perform just as well with a new offensive line. His contract is up after the 2022 season and he currently has 0 playoff appearances for the team and is 47-63 as a starter. If he proves the doubters wrong, he could be a Raider for the rest of his career. If not, his time in Las Vegas might be coming to an end.
Stephon Gilmore – New England Patriots (Maybe?)
The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year has been a staple in the Patriots’ defence the last four seasons. He’s been to three straight pro-bowls and earned all-pro honours in 2018 and 2019. Now entering his ninth year in the league at 30-years-old, he’s got a few good years left, but time’s not on his side. Does he want to be sitting on a New England roster that’s regressed whilst it’s divisional opponents (mostly Miami and Buffalo) have improved? I don’t think so. He’s a solid corner who can add value to any team and it’ll be interesting to see him go elsewhere for the last year of his contract.
However, if he does stick with Bill Belichick and company, he’s got the potential to help push the Patriots into a wildcard spot. I said their roster had regressed, I didn’t say that it was completely abysmal. With Cam Newton having a proper off season with the team – coupled with their biggest free agency drive in recent memory – Gilmore can certainly make an impact on the defensive side of the ball. If they make the playoffs this year and he plays well, he’ll land a big contract in next year’s off-season to close out his career nicely.
Tua Tagovailoa – Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins have the potential to be a good football team in 2021. They’ve got some tough competition in the AFC East, and conference as a whole, but their roster looks like it’s up to the challenge. The success of the team rests in Tua Tagovailoa’s hands. Since being announced as the starter of the team in their week seven bye last year, the rookie quarterback went 6-3 and finished the season with a 64% completion percentage, 11 touchdowns and five picks.
By the time the 2021 season gets underway, he will have had a full offseason as a starter under his belt and plenty of new toys to play with. His college teammate Jaylen Waddle joined the ranks after being a heavily-praised wide receiver in this year’s draft. The sixth overall pick will be lining up alongside Will Fuller, who is solid when healthy, and DaVante Parker – making up a top tier receiving core. Combine that with some good coaching, and a strong defence, Tua has the potential to pop in 2021. That’s not to mention that he also put his injury doubts in the rearview mirror and is looking as healthy as ever.
So that’s it. My most intriguing players for the rapidly approaching 2021 season. It’s going to be a fun one, so strap in. Is there someone I missed from the list? Or is there a player you don’t agree with? Let me know on Twitter @WiddowsonOwen.